Like a row of books by Faber

Peter Porter

  • Other Passports: Poems 1958-1985 by Clive James
    Cape, 221 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 224 02422 1

It was the young Auden, writing at about the time he was composing his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, who declared that you could tell if someone was going to be a poet by considering his love of words. If he found words fascinating – their sounds, their peculiar symmetries and associations, their chimes, rhymes, assonances and quiddities – then he was likely to prove the real thing. If, on the other hand, he regarded words as the medium for important ideas he wished to impart, then, however impassioned or crusading he might be, he wasn’t going to be primarily a poet, even if he cast his messages to the world in verse. This nostrum begs many questions, but it remains a good rule-of-thumb. By this test, Clive James is a true poet. Line after line of his has a characteristic personal tone, a kind of end-stopped singingness which is almost independent of what it says. The following are taken at random from Other Passports:

Like injured ozone to angelic wings –
Snowflakes knock spots off Philibert de L’Orme
Woodcut adoring kings with narrow eye
Black-bottomed whitewear out of nowhere fast
You see the azure through the muscatel
The white opacities we hear as thunder

The fact that each is an iambic pentameter disturbs their individual impact by turning them, in this listing, into a sort of joke stanza such as people have often made up by bringing together totally unrelated lines. It also speaks of a characteristic of James’s verse: that the poetry resides in the tension between the loaded singing line and the need to move the verse on in the service of a proper paraphrasable meaning. The quoted lines could never constitute a James stanza, not just because they don’t rhyme, but because obscurity is anathema to him. Yet it is precisely because he harps so much, in both his prose pronouncements, such as the introduction to this book, and in the poems themselves, on poetry as a public art with a responsibility to its readers of satisfying their expectations of form and meaning, that it’s important to stress his latent loyalty to poetry as beautiful language.

The early poems, especially those reprinted from student magazines in Australia, show him as a lyric writer from the start. The most recent, which are in the front of the book, tend to move away from the tight stanzaic or couplet forms of the greater part of his output – poetry from the period of his mock epics beginning with Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage and running through to Poem of the Year – but they, too, are loyal to a lyrical impulse. The reader of James’s poetry should not be misled by his polemic into thinking of him as a reactionary determined to take mentors such as Larkin and Amis au pied de la lettre and never to give vent to an obscure or pretentious line. In general, James’s poetry does not much resemble that of the poets he declares his allegiance to: his temperament is different from theirs. He is more a latterday Metaphysical. Behind his most representative poems I hear the voice of William Empson.

‘Funnelweb’, probably the finest poem he has written, is as hard a nut to crack as many an Empson poem, though it stops short of both the bafflement and authority of ‘Bacchus’. His affection for the language of science, and even more for the world of applied science, is Empsonian. The James who stated that the modern equivalent of a Donatello statue is not something by Henry Moore but a drop-head Lamborghini was only exaggerating a dearly held truth: that the idea of Two Cultures is as silly a notion today as it would have been when Donatello and Brunelleschi were working in Florence. To the rationalism of the Movement, Clive James adds a fondness for the lyric as song text which he inherited as much from the Caroline poets, Rochester and Auden as from Broadway and rock music. Literary critics have not taken kindly to the several albums of songs he wrote with Pete Atkin, and I don’t feel able to assess them myself. But this indifference has been largely an averting of eyes from what we understand only partly and a turning of our gaze to the many other departments of art James excels in. The rock press, however, has sometimes been lethally opposed. One critic, reviewing a James/Atkin album, excoriated James for thinking that neat Movement quatrains could possibly be appropriate to the sort of music Atkin writes. He might have done better to recognise that James’s craftsmanship is positively evangelical in the field of Pop. Let it be better made, as lyrics and music were in the days of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin, is his belief.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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